Simon Cole has been doing walking tours of Hackney since 2012. Unusually, for a man’s-man who also works as a personal trainer and fitness journalist, his roster includes a feminist tour of the area, focusing on the life of local icon Mary Wollstonecraft.
For International Women’s Day 2016, next Tuesday 8 March, Simon is taking it up a notch with his “Feminism, Fame & Infamy in N16” running tour, celebrating Wollstonecraft along with many of the other incredible heroines of Hackney.
— PT Simon Cole (@HackneyFit) February 26, 2016
“The history of Hackney is amazing,” says Simon, “It’s been leading the way for centuries, and I’m especially drawn to its alternative history, which happens to include a lot of women.”
Simon explains that the idea for the tour arose soon after he first came across Wollstonecraft, and started to connect her with other women in the area.
“I started to discover there was a theme that needed to be talked about,” he says. “I believe in equality, that everyone should have a fair go, and regardless of whether Mary was male or female, I realised I had found a story of a woman ahead of her time.
“She was a single mother, a journalist, a war correspondent, an adventurer, an explorer – a real inspiration who transcends gender.”
Since 2014, Simon has been working with a charity called Mary on the Green, who have been campaigning for many years to have a monument of Wollstonecraft to be erected on Newington Green – where she lived for many years.
“Newington Green was a place of great significance in her life. It was where she had ran a school for women, where she taught herself,” says Simon, “You go to Westminster and it seems that every general hxas a monument of some kind, and yet a woman who proposed equality of half the human race of half the planet doesn’t? It seems wrong.”
Along with Wollstonecraft, the “Feminism, Fame & Infamy in N16” tour will see attendees learn about local suffragettes, Baader-Meinhof and The Angry Brigade, a left-wing revolutionary terrorist group which included female political activists such as Anna Mendelssohn and Hilary Creek.
“It’s fascinating to stand outside a really ordinary looking terraced house in trendy Stoke Newington and realise that’s where a major terrorist incident took place,” says Simon.
The route will take attendees through Abney Park cemetery, an unconsecrated burial ground where many female radicals were laid to rest, along with abolitionists and suffragettes. The tour, which then winds through Dalston, will end at the Newington Green Unitarian Chapel. Half the money raised from the tour will go to Mary on the Green and the other half to the Abney Park Cemetery Trust.
“We’re very excited about the Hackney Tours special event for International Women’s Day,” says Bee Rowlatt, from Mary on the Green, “Our campaign has really been embraced by locals who want to celebrate the life and legacy of one of London’s great unsung heroes.”
“I’m hoping we can get some people, get some lights, make some noise, do a bit of PR for the charities,” Simon adds.
Women’s rights pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft was born in the East End and spent many of her early years in Hoxton. She is best known for her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman widely accepted as being the first major feminist work in the English language. Wollstonecraft’s work had strong connections to Hackney, having set up a boarding school for girls in Newington Green in 1784.
Edith Cavell was a nurse and assistant matron of St Leonard’s Hospital in Hackney at the start of the 20th century. As a military nurse during the First World War, she was known for treating soldiers of both sides and entered the global spotlight when she helped hundreds of Allied soldiers escape from a German prison. She was arrested and sentenced to death by a German firing squad. The night before her execution she told an Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
A poet, painter, musician, actor and political activist, Mendelssohn was born in Stockport but became notorious in Hackney as part of the radical ‘Stoke Newington Eight’, a subgroup of The Angry Brigade. In the Seventies they set up the radical libertarian publication Strike, published out of a flat on Amhurst Road. In 1972, The Stoke Newington Eight were accused of conspiracy to cause explosions leading to a 10 year prison sentence for Mendelssohn, of which she served five.
The daughter of Portuguese Jews who fled to England during the inquisition, Grace Aguilar was a novelist and writer on Jewish history. She was born near what is now Hackney Central Station in 1816 but due to multiple illnesses was homeschooled by her mother. From a young age she published collections of her own poems but was probably best known for her book The Spirit of Judaism. Aguilar’s health deteriorated when she developed spine paralysis and died at the age of 31.